Saturday, December 31, 2011

a pho welcome

Persons who travel from California to New England in December may well find themselves wondering whether they have made the correct choice. They may question the merit of living where they live. They may also, if they are me, be thinking as they drive down the highway in the final conveyance of the day (elevator, rental car, elevator, airport tram, escalator, airplane, shuttle bus, car that had a mouse in it all week) that a day that began at 5am Pacific time, which was no time for breakfast, and continued through several bags of potato chips on a five hour flight, might well conclude 12 hours later with oatmeal for dinner.

Then again, they may get a pretty exciting text message as their thoughts begin to run in this direction.

Let me back up a moment to say that when we got to Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco, the first thing I saw when I walked in the door was this:

And despite the rude gesture it appeared to be making in my direction, I was so happy to see it that I took its picture. It's a Buddha's Hand, which is a kind of lemon, but maybe you already knew that. I have no idea what to do with one of these, but it seemed to me to bode well.

Back to the exciting text message, which said “I left some soup on your porch,” or words to that effect. However an angel might phrase it.

On our porch, we discovered an hour or so later, was not just an enormous pot of still-warm soup, with noodles and greens and lemons to put in it--could there be anything better when you come back to a chilly house, under-slept and hungry and dehydrated?--but peeking over the edge was this great honking humdinger of a Massachusetts-grown beauty:

Sorry, California. You have a lot to miss about you, but we're home now.

Friday, December 30, 2011

lunch money

[A post-in-progress, as some of the accompanying photos are locked in my phone and will require a consulting teenager and some new skills to unlock, while others are trapped in a camera that is out of batteries, plus this report will be written in installments, lest I go on and on and on.]

This was a non-food vacation, which is fine, even with an obsessive feeder and eater like myself. But it was a non-food vacation in one of the richest food mines known to me personally, which is kind of like torture--in the sense of the word that we the fortunate employ when we say “torture” and we don’t mean “torture,” not at all. Kind of like when we say we are “starving,” when we mean it has been a while since breakfast. In that sense, it was torture. In that sense, I was starving.

Which of course I was not. The thing is, in my family of origin, mealtime rules. We can plan this or that activity, yes, but will we be back in time for lunch, or should we bring some along? And so forth. In the group we were running with this week, meal times often blow by. You may find yourself embarking on a hike at 11:45 am, with no plan to tote along, acquire or be in the presence of calories before 4pm. You may find yourself insisting in an unpopular fashion, or you may find yourself stuffing comestibles into your pockets on the QT, or you may find yourself and the minors around you quite peckish on a majestic hilltop or in a beautiful dry riverbed. This was not a vacation on which to forage extensively for esoteric ingredients and take time imagining how you might assemble them, or to linger over their preparation. It was a lovely time, made especially so by my nephew who is so deeply happy to be with my children that he is practically airborne with happiness in their presence, and vice versa. But it was not a lot about food.

It was a good time to reflect on why the finding, preparing and delivering of food is so absorbing to me, but that is perhaps a topic for another time.

Today, our last day away and spent on our own in San Francisco, was more about food, but even so there were some deliciously inedible pleasures. We woke up in my friend’s beautiful Tiburon house, which hangs off a rocky hill over the bay and which was the site of many happy escapes when I was in college. As the sun rose on the water and the city twinkled in the distance, I watched a sleek black seal pop his head up here and there in the water. My son appeared at my side, his eye on a couple of wrapped gifts with his name on them, and I told him a seal had come to wish him happy birthday. We looked out the window, in time to see the seal turn somersaults. The postage-stamp-sized rocky beach, reached by switchback wooden stairs from the house, was covered in sea glass of all colors. We crossed the Golden Gate Bridge in deepest fog, her orange towers only faintly visible above us.

After a nod to culture in the morning, we had lunch here. It was insanely crowded and claustrophobically tiny and there was nowhere to sit, leading all among us, myself included, to wonder if the detour was worth it. The sandwiches we tore into as soon as we reached the sidewalk laid all doubt to rest. I snarfed up a tofu banh mi with a tart and potent lemongrass dressing that was beyond tasty, and did not hear any complaints from the snarfers around me in terms of their own sandwich selections. Dazzled by the absurdly plentiful choices, we put a few of these and one or two of those in our little basket as we shouldered along the tiny aisles, and I soon found myself with a little sticker shock at the register.

Lunch at the oasis can cost you, after time in the desert.

Figuratively speaking.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

like lemmings

Going to the Davis Farmer’s Market is not a good way to foster fond feelings about living in New England in the winter. In New England, the farmer’s markets close in October, because there isn’t anything left in the ground to eat. We eke out a few holiday markets in November and December, at which it is possible to score some excellent turnips and Brussels sprouts and lots of jam and socks and maple syrup, maybe the odd remaining apple or pear.

Out here in California on Christmas Eve, the market was a preposterous cornucopia of fruits and vegetables. It was like visiting another planet. Planet Food. I stopped to admire the Meyer lemons at one booth, thinking about the space in my luggage that had been vacated by some holiday gifts and about the small amount of cash in my wallet at that moment. I put two lemons on the scale. “Let’s see, at two dollars a pound that would be…” began the nice man behind the table, peering at the digital display, but whatever he said after that was drowned out by my nearly-hysterical giggling.

“What?” he asked, rightfully but mistakenly offended by my outburst.

“Did you say two dollars A POUND?” I asked, and as he started to defend his prices from my scorn, I quickly told him that we pay approximately two to three dollars per lemon at home, except more often than not the Meyers available at that price look as though they have been swatted across the country by a relay system of tennis rackets. I bought a nice bagful from him, but when I returned with my prize I was reminded by my sister-in-law that lemons are essentially a weed in her neighborhood, every block with at least one house that sports in its yard a tree so laden with fruit that the owners have stopped paying attention. The lemons drop to the ground and rot, except when it is a tangerine tree, in which case it is tangerines dropping and rotting. “HEY!” said my son as we drove past another tree in this condition. “You should let us Americans handle that for you!” His sister pointed out that we were still in the U.S., so he amended it to “us SMARTER Americans, then.”

Across the street from where I sit, there is a tree full of hideous and fragrant bumpy lemons of a type unknown to me. A good stash of these are making their way into the suitcase, too. But I sacrificed one today, for the sake of these little treats I have for you.

A lemon square is nice. The top is tangy and sweet, the crust buttery and rich, and the whole shebang mere child’s play to produce. Made with a Meyer lemon, it is another thing entirely. Their exotic perfume makes the same kind of mouth music for me that lychees and quinces and elderflowers make. I like to use one Meyer and one regular lemon--not just because I must usually fork over some serious lettuce for that one Meyer, but also because they are less acidic and need the tang of a regular lemon to keep the whole sweet and tart balance.

At home I have about nine recipes for lemon squares, including four separate ones on the inside panel of a single box of Land O'Lakes butter, vintage 1982, which is funny as I guess they couldn't settle on just one either. Out here I had none of those, and had to triangulate off the Joy of Cooking and my jet-lagged memory. The small army of staff tasters on the R&P Travel Team is downstairs working these over. If we need to re-post, we will go that extra mile and make another pan.

lemon squares


½ cup (one stick) unsalted butter, cold and cut into chunks

¼ c sifted confectioner’s sugar

1 c flour

½ c toasted almonds or pecans, very finely chopped or ground in a food processor with the flour.

A nice pinch of good coarse sea salt or fleur de sel, if you have it, which I didn't, but I know it would be good


¾ c granulated sugar

½ t baking powder

2 eggs

½ t vanilla extract

finely grated (a microplane is nice) zest of the meyer lemon, or about 2t lemon zest

1/3 c lemon juice

Preheat oven to 350 and get an 8 x 8 pan ready.

In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, nuts and confectioner’s sugar and the salt if you are using it, and then work in the butter until the mixture is coarse and crumbly. Gently pat it into the pan in a very even layer. Bake about 15 minutes, until set and the edges lightly browned, and remove to the counter but leave the oven on.

While that baking is going on, in the same bowl you used for the crust beat the eggs with the sugar and the baking powder and the lemon zest until thick. Stir in the vanilla. Once the crust is done, use the microplane to strain the lemon juice into this mixture and stir well. Pour it over the warm crust and return to the oven for 15-20 minutes longer, until the top is set and only barely golden.

Allow to cool completely before slicing into squares. Some people dust these with confectioner’s sugar, but I am not one of them.

Friday, December 23, 2011

just plane food

We don’t take airplanes very often. Maybe if one does, the changes in the air travel experience are not as obvious. For us, it is kind of like seeing the holiday card photo of a family we aren’t in regular touch with--when a year goes by in between encounters, certain changes in personal style stand out.

Enough has been said elsewhere about the insults of the security process, I reckon. Let me just add that I have had a vision of the future, in which airports are full of travelers in backless hospital johnnies, because I think the fact that your backside is covered as you shuffle along being glared and yelled at is about the only remaining shred of connection to personal dignity remaining. Oh, wait. Yesterday in the airport I had a body scan. So I suppose booty coverage has already entered the departure lounge. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

A zillion years ago, back when you could take a really BIG bottle of lotion on the plane to keep your face from crackling off, there was an airline called People’s Express. They were the $99 fare pioneers, I think, and that was nice, and maybe there was some revolutionary employee ownership angle or something, but they also were the first to surrender the crazy notion that a hot meal must be served to people on airplanes. Why? Why give unhappy, confined people bad things to eat? Why make the lump of cat food so hot, and the bread so knife-shatteringly cold? Why so many tiny little dishes with plastic wrap on them? People’s Express gave you a basket with a piece of cold fried chicken, an apple and a cookie. The flight attendants could fling them out quickly, and it was a pretty close approximation of what people wanted to eat. I could appreciate that even as a vegetarian.

Despite all the little insults now inherent in getting from one coast to another in a single day, one thing has improved. If you have a briefcase full of cash with you when you clear security, you can get pretty decent food in airports now, and take it with you on the flight. My mom used to pack stupendous airplane picnics, and as long as your menu does not include a container of liquid that is larger than a thimble, you can still do that, too. Clear bags. It’s all about the clear bags. I packed a lot of sandwiches and clementines.

But I discovered a devious little workaround for that liquid regulation, and one that has merit even if your action plan is to fork over the moolah for the grab’n’go options on the jetway:

Four hours into a flight that had two hours left to go, my crispy, weary children greeted a cup of hot miso with deep delight. “It tasted like real food and kind of swept me away from being on the airplane because of that,” said one reviewer.

That’s about all the food news I can wring out of a day in the air. But now I am in California, where food rules. There’s bound to be more to say shortly.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

results may vary

Growing up, my house was all about food. My mother was an adventurous chef from the time I can remember, and my sisters ran various catering ventures together and apart. When they left for college, I inherited one of these operations and was finally promoted from perennial sous-chef to the top spot. I cooked little dinner parties in people’s apartments and laid out buffets in their country homes. I baked for a little gourmet store, and people ordered baskets of cookies from me. Around the same time my father, who had for years confined his interest in cooking to the eating end of things, was persuaded by a group of his pals to sign up for a series of cooking lessons with a top-notch Italian chef. He went off to class each week with his little man friends, and returned each time clutching a sheaf of recipes and a new list of absolutely essential kitchen tools that he needed to purchase. “I don’t know HOW,” he was heard to mutter on the weekends, as he galloped in gourmet fashion around the kitchen, recreating some divine something from that week’s class and encountering yet another scandalous gap in my mother’s batterie de cuisine, “you people have cooked in this kitchen for this long.”

This was amusing. Among the must-have items purchased at the chef’s insistence (and not incidentally, purchased from the chef himself) was a little iron rotisserie device used to roast game birds in the fireplace (did I mention that he taught these classes in Manhattan?) and which had a little bell in it that rang as you (or the landless serf on your Tuscan estate that you assigned to monitor it) turned the crank. Even without it, my mother had fed us handsomely for many years. The only action the rotisserie purchased by my dad ever saw was as a plaything for my mechanics-obsessed little nephew, who called it the “dinger-dody” and spent many happy hours winding its little brass handle and listening to the ringing bell. No hen, partridge or grouse ever sullied the spikes.

One Saturday, midstream in a complex recipe for that night’s dinner guests, my dad discovered he was either lacking an essential ingredient or out of time to perform some hidden task in the steps that had been laid out for him in the recipe. One of us said, as we sometimes very gently did, well, you don’t really need to use that, or do that, or here, why don’t you substitute this. “HOW DO YOU EVER LEARN THAT?” he wailed. How, he wanted to know, do you acquire the inner compass that lets you know what is extraneous, what can be modified, and what can be substituted for any given ingredient or step in a recipe? I don’t remember what we told him, exactly. I hope we were kind.

The short answer to his question is: by doing it over and over. My dad stopped cooking not long after the classes ended, and retired to eating. But even people who stay in the kitchen develop similar mental roadblocks to certain areas of the menu. I, for example, make terrible pie. But I digress.

Last week I had lunch at the achingly gorgeous home of a dynamic and fabulous person, who has a high-powered job in the city. She whipped in from New York, and barely had her jacket off before she threw together in approximately five minutes a salad with an absolutely perfect vinaigrette, set a gorgeous table in an immaculate home of her own design (she had designed it earlier, of course--not that day), and confessed to the fact that she could not and would not bake. Anything. Ever. “If it has flour in it,” she said, “I pretty much know I have to buy it.”

Mindset, mindset.

“I know, “ said my Connecticut hostess, “that I just need to set aside a day to try to get a handle on something, not try to do it when I am rushed to get to a dinner party.” To this I say: brownies.

Brownies are a great way to cultivate a fondness for baking, because the result is almost always edible and the variations are endless and the skills are basic and the time commitment is brief. Because they are tasty and easy, you are motivated to make them again. Furthermore, they keep well, the necessary tools can be found in even a minimally-furnished kitchen and almost everyone loves to eat them. If you can make good salad dressing and good brownies, it's safe to say you can win Houseguest Of The Year in many beachfront towns and ski resorts.

In college one of my sisters had a friend, legend has it, who could make brownies like MacGyver, with whatever you had on hand. Unsweetened chocolate, but no butter? Plenty of cocoa and butter, but no eggs? She had some mental slide rule that allowed her to endlessly adjust and convert and end up with the desired result: a hot pan of brownies. Sadly this person has faded from our lives, and did so before I could perform a Vulcan Mind Meld. But once you grasp that the main action in a brownie is the chocolate/fat/sugar interaction (this is why brownies are not health food, and there is no point in pretending otherwise), you begin to see how you can shimmy a little this way or a little that way and still get a tasty outcome. If you don’t want to grasp anything except a hot brownie, skip to the recipes below.

brownie pointers:

  • The essential ingredient is the parchment paper. Make your negotiations elsewhere.
  • Nothing beats hot brownies, except brownies that have sat for a day or two. These are great if you need to bake now for something that is happening later.
  • Under-baked brownies are better than over-baked brownies, so check often towards the end of the cooking time. Unless you burn them completely, however, brownies are pretty forgiving in terms of done-ness.
  • Because so little flour is required to hold things together, brownies can be made gluten-free with no decline in tastiness perceptible even to the gluten-tolerant. I like millet flour because it is more finely ground than rice flour (hence no grit) and is neutral in flavor (GF flour mixes can be slightly bitter.)
  • Once during a brownie emergency the only cocoa I had in the house was a fancy tin of spicy French cocoa that someone had given us that had chile and cayenne in it. Oh, my. That back bite of heat made the sweetness more manageable in a way that was pretty well-received by the public. If no one has given you a tin of fancy French cocoa, then just throw in a pinch of pure ground chiles (not chile powder, which has salt and other spices in it) and a pinch of cayenne, and it will be just as if someone had.
  • I made them once with peanut flour, to similarly positive reviews.
  • Obviously you can change up any nuts you might add without adjusting anything else, and get a totally new flavor that way, or add a tablespoon of instant espresso powder and create a rocket-launching dessert.

Each of these recipes makes a 13 x 9 pan of brownies, which is a lot. You can halve the recipes if you like, but you can also freeze brownies or make instant friends by giving them away, so why bother?

cocoa brownies

Adapted from Alice Medrich’s Bittersweet

One skill (stirring) and only one bowl to wash!

2 ½ sticks unsalted butter

2 ½ cups sugar

1 ¾ cups unsweetened cocoa powder (natural or Dutch-process)

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

4 cold large eggs

1 cup flour

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 325°F. Line a 13 x 9 pan with a piece of parchment paper. Really. These are too sticky to handle any other way. You don't have to get fussy with the lining of the pan--just tear off a sheet long enough to come up the short ends of the pan and plop it in there.

Place the butter in a medium heatproof bowl and set the bowl in (not over) a wide skillet of barely simmering water. Once it is halfway melted, add the cocoa, sugar and salt. Stir until the butter is melted and the mixture is smooth and hot enough that you don't want to keep your finger in there longer than you need to to test it. Remove the bowl from the skillet and set aside to cool for a few minutes.

Stir in the vanilla with a wooden spoon. Add the eggs one at a time, stirring vigorously after each one. When the batter looks thick, shiny, and well blended, add the flour and stir until you cannot see it any longer, then beat vigorously for 40 strokes with the wooden spoon or a rubber spatula. Stir in any nuts you feel moved to add. Spread as evenly as possible in the lined pan.

Bake until a toothpick plunged into the center emerges slightly moist with batter, 30 to 40 minutes. If you don’t have any toothpicks and aren’t up to whittling one, the edges should look firm and crisp and the top will have a light brown layer on it, and the center should be set, but not too set.

Let cool in the pan on a rack, then grasp the parchment to slide the giant brownie to a cutting board. The sharper the knife and the cooler the brownie, the easier they slice.

chocolate brownies

Adapted from The Silver Palate Cookbook

It’s hard to explain the difference between these and cocoa brownies. These are not as chewy and somehow richer, and involve more utensils and methods but are still pretty darn simple. They slice neater, if that matters.

2 sticks unsalted butter

4 oz unsweetened chocolate

4 eggs

2 c sugar

½ cup flour

1 tsp vanilla

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and parchment-line (in a parchment-less pinch, you can just butter and flour the pan) a 13 x 9” pan.

In a double boiler (or a bowl set over a pan of hot water), melt the chocolate and butter together until ¾ melted. Remove from heat and stir until completely melted and smooth.

Beat the eggs and sugar with a whisk or hand beater until thick and pale yellow. Add the vanilla and fold in the chocolate. Combine gently and thoroughly. Gently fold in the flour and pour into the waiting pan.

Bake about 25 minutes, or until the center is just set. Cool before slicing, as above, if you can bear it.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

food & whining

exhibit A: the actual toast

Before the meat of today’s information, a few notes to the file from the R&P test kitchens:

The persistent smell of burned toast that permeates the house for weeks even when you are not burning the toast may in fact be due to this piece of bread from possibly as long ago as October if you pause to think about how long that smell has gone on, which can lurk, camouflaged, in the innermost reaches of the dimmest back corner of the floor of the toaster oven, but you may not feel motivated to determine this until a significant amount of black smoke billows out of the toaster when you--a person who has decided they can talk to the world about making home-cooked food for your family and the joys of a civilized meal time--pop a gluten-free frozen waffle into the toaster with the intention of eating it in the car. Once you discover the culprit, rest assured you don’t have to worry about the wasted piece of bread, or about the wasted time you might spend strolling to the door to throw it out for the chickens if, like our heroine here, you have taken the precaution all good cooks and homemakers take of keeping a chicken with a neurological problem in your kitchen.

exhibit B: the chicken (file photo; not taken while burning things)

Congratulate yourself on this foresight as you toss the black toast into her box (please note, photo for illustration purposes only; she usually is in a box, I swear. But if I were to just show you the box, you might experience some nagging doubt that it actually had a chicken in it. Now you can relax. It does.)

If, like the protagonist in our hypothetical dramatization, you then over-crank the toast knob on the toaster and (oh, the irony) actually burn the waffle, carbonize it I mean, and then, in disgust, throw it to the waiting dog:

exhibit C: the dog (also a file photo, but this is definitely his "how about you just give that to me?" face)

then the amount of time it takes for the dog to take the waffle to the one area of the living room rug he has not yet destroyed and consume it will be EXACTLY equivalent (nothing left over!) to the amount of time it takes you to recall that frozen gluten-free waffles are made with potato flour. We have a rule in our house that whomsoever feeds the dog all or part of a potato or potato by-product may sleep with him outdoors. His relationship, digestively, with the potato is not a cordial one. The Waffle Felt Round The World.

As for lunch, everyone is on the ravioli cure today because I am taking our woolly products to the Berkshire Grown Holiday Market tomorrow and have not been as attentive to matters like grocery shopping and laundry as I might otherwise have been. Some people had to wear non-gender-approriate socks today, or would have had there not been some dumpster-diving in the hamper to resurrect yesterday’s hosiery.

In related news, at our local fantastic toy store we got this fantastic new thermos, which makes an easier load-in for the ravioli, and I had to cut the oranges like this:

because one of my customers has too many wiggly teeth in the front to eat oranges any other way.

Also on today’s menu: the nibble box. A short stack of crackers, some cubed ham, slivers of cheese, the odd pickle or olive.

Now the ravioli’s all gone and I’ve already played the pasta card today, so what we’ll have for dinner remains an open question. But the dog and I will be outside then, so maybe I don't have to worry about it.

a toast to you

Welcome to the Toast Post. A post about toast. The All-Toast Post!

I am going to give you a recipe for toast.

Silly, I realize. But also not silly, for two reasons. One, my friend Laura M. asked me to. If she asked you, believe me you would also write a short essay about toast.

Second, a recipe for toast is a golden invitation to climb up on my soapbox for a moment. Love that. Toast is not just toast, because bread is not just bread. Bread is polar bears and 65 degree weather in New England in December, and it will be as long as we accept that it is totally normal for a person entering a natural foods store in Massachusetts, with their cloth bag and careful thinking, to buy fresh bread that was made yesterday in Colorado. I looked it up and there are two flour bins in the factory--doesn't that sound nice? I have two flour bins, too--one for white flour and one for whole wheat, just like they have. But their flour bins hold 75,000 pounds of flour each. I am sure the people who started the bakery in Colorado are nice people. Bread people usually are. But as long as we have an economy where biggering the bakery to the point of putting bread on an airplane every day is the key to a viable business plan, then bread is not bread and toast = polar bears.

OK! Going to step down now and wipe the froth from my mouth area. After some ranting, one needs the calming and civilizing effects of a good piece of toast. Cinnamon toast, in fact. If you want to make someone feel better, cinnamon toast cut in little squares or triangles is the way to go.

cinnamon toast

  • a nice piece of bread (not just because of the polar bears, but because better bread makes better toast. You don't have to make the bread, but just make sure it's nice bread that isn't very tired from a flight)
  • room-temperature butter (this is key; cold butter leads to stress on you and the bread)
  • some honey, sucanat, maple sugar or regular sugar (about a teaspoon)
  • some cinnamon (in a jar with a shaker top)

Spread the bread with an even layer of butter, getting all the way to the edges to foil the crust-haters (when the crispy cinnamon stuff goes all the way to the edges, they either have to nibble at it like chinchillas, or give in and eat the damn crust). Spread a layer of honey or sprinkle a layer of sugar on top, just as evenly, not too thickly. Now shake some cinnamon on there, as much as you like. Toast in a toaster oven (not a toaster, but you knew that--just making sure) until there is a nice degree of melty bubbling action on the bread. Cool a moment, or someone will burn their mouth.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

invalid entry

Laurie Colwin, whom I believe I may have mentioned my fondness for, wrote compellingly about the little challenges and satisfactions to be found in selecting just the right thing to offer to a hungry person. In her case, she was discussing a person just in from the airport after a long flight:

“This person must be coddled, comforted and made to know that something delicious but not taxing will be waiting for him to eat…The question is, What? There are certain things a jet-lagged person should never be given. Complicated pastry, such as a napoleon, should never even be shown to people who have been in an airport within the past ten hours. Nor should they be offered steak or grilled meat. An omelet sounds right but is in fact wrong.”

She continues to mull the options, eventually crafting a small meal that will heal all the little injuries and indignities of air travel. I read this with rapt attention when I first stumbled across it--I didn’t know anyone else who obsessed to quite this degree, or derived the same happiness from getting it just right.

At the faintest hint of invitation, I will make a dinner basket for people with a new baby. Feeding pregnant people, the recently-parental and the convalescent is my idea of happy work. Everything must be tempting and satisfying, not too rich or spicy, soothing but not dull, nourishing but not heavy. It makes me chortle with contentment to do this. Does this mean I am some kind of nutball? Of course it does. Oh, well.

To me, the measure of how well I know someone is how just-right a meal I could make them--even if I never do. If you ask me to assess my closeness to any of my pals, my first thought is “do I know what they like to eat?” Can I name the thing on a plate that makes them scoot up closer to the table, could I bring them a little treat and know it would delight them, do I know what arcane childhood aversion they have toted along into adulthood (no white food! No cold cheese! No scratchy lettuce in the salad!)? When I think about it, this kind of knowledge isn’t a substitute for intimacy, it’s the kind of information you can only glean from time in someone’s company. It IS intimacy.

The funny thing I’ve noticed paying close attention to feeding people, especially children and pregnant people and those who are recovering from illness, who are really making use of the calories in meaningful ways, is that the more your body needs something, the more you are likely to find it appealing. I am not referring here to the irresistible urge to eat a doughnut. That is another principle entirely. But take the case of the Slippery Soup. A friend was told not long ago by a fancy doctor that her troublesome vocal chords were giving her trouble because they were exceptionally parched. Something about this word, “parched,” put me in mind of the Slippery Soup I would make for my children when they were small and had just emerged from one of those feverish little sudden illnesses that blow through like a storm at sea and leave a person droopy and dry and in need of restoration. The soup sounds kind of unappealing, I warned her, and frankly looks rather that way as well, though there is nothing unequivocally yucky in it (it is not, for example, made with innards or tentacles or anything that smells bad). But if it is the right stuff for you, I told her (remembering my flushed tots slurping it down), you will probably find it tasty. Friend made it. Husband of friend, appalled, said “what the hell is that stuff you are making?” but she could not answer him, because she was eating it up.

You will not want to serve this to guests, but the indignities of the holiday season may mean you’ll want it yourself at some point. You’ll know when the time arrives, because it will sound way better than it sounds right now.

slippery soup

for restoration, rehydration and recovery (not dinner parties)

1-2 strips of dried kombu seaweed (in the Japanese section of your local natural foods store; no mail order or sea voyages required)

1/4 c pearled barley (you could use any other whole grain, if gluten is an issue)

2-4 cloves garlic, peeled but whole

1 large carrot, cut in chunks

tamari, miso or bragg's liquid aminos (to taste)

Simmer the first four ingredients in about 3 cups of water until the seaweed is softened, carrots are very tender and barley is entirely cooked, and the liquid looks to the untrained eye a bit like bilge water. Strain out the solids. You can chop up the seaweed and carrots and return them to the soup along with the barley (I generally leave out the garlic, as by now it has worked its magic and lost its charm, both), or just serve it as a broth. Either way, season with the miso or soy, maybe a squeeze of lemon, too, and either add or don't add the solids back in. You'll be back on your feet in no time.

Monday, December 12, 2011

bees on earth

Well, you’ve waited long enough.

Here is the Raisin & Porpoise Holiday Gift Guide.

“She’s going to tell us to sew something.”

“Or felt it. Or knit it. Or bake it. She’s going to tell us to make it ourselves.

But I’m not! I have a few surprises up my sleeve, and here is one: I want you to buy stuff. Go all crazy and buy stuff.

Maybe you are secretly weary of all the locavore this-and-that you hear. Maybe you read the 100 Mile Diet and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and all the Michael Pollan books, all of them, just like everyone said you should. Maybe it all makes sense and you know they’re right but it also just makes you stressed and paralyzed, there in the store with your reusable bag and your carbon footprint, staring at the imported but organic this and the local but conventional that and wondering what you are supposed to buy to be making the right impact and still have something good to eat.

It’s all right, honey.

Honey. Honey is the answer. Buying honey from small producers supports a healthy bee population and supports beekeepers and farmers and gardeners and, well, the entire ecosystem on which all life depends. Neckties and hands-free soap dispensers cannot make this claim. Plus hardly anyone in the history of the world has been given a gorgeous jar of honey and thought: oh, great, what am I supposed to do with that?

If you want to know more about bees and life, go here, here,here or here. If you don’t have a beekeeper in the neighborhood to shop with and you just want to buy some honey for your Aunt Gertie and have it shipped right to her, head over to Local Harvest. Their “search by zip code” feature means you can buy honey from someone near you, or near Aunt Gertie, or you can just head right for the creamed vanilla honey and send that to everyone you know.

Ho, ho, ho.

image courtesy of

go ahead and try

to ever go to the grocery store again and not be humming this.

naan event

I don’t think we are going to get much further without talking about Laurie Colwin. I ate and cooked plenty of food before I fell into her loving embrace, but nothing I have eaten or cooked since has been remotely the same. If you don’t already have a copy of Home Cooking and More Home Cooking, there’s no time like the holiday season to treat yourself right. I have gifted, loaned out, lost and replaced enough copies of those books to build a small shed. My daughters have been seen curled up on the couch with her, and let me say they do not seek out a lot of food writing for their reading material. She is deeply concerned with making something tasty and satisfying without going to very much trouble, and with helping you do the same, and forgiving in herself and you the times you just have to take a shortcut. I like these qualities in a person. She had already, sadly, died when I discovered her, or I think I would have constructed that small shed in her yard and lived there as her acolyte. She lived pretty nearby. I discovered with deep satisfaction, reading the introduction to her books, that my beloved high school English teacher had been her close friend, which makes me sigh with happiness and regret.

I’ve asked her here today to talk about flatbread, and I asked her for two reasons: her recipe rocks, and she makes it all seem very relaxing and manageable. Which it is. Mindset, mindset. Today the lunchboxes trundled off with flatbread and slices of mozzarella and ham to eat with them. I did a time/motion study, and can attest that it took exactly, precisely and specifically no time at all to assemble this in a container, as compared to the time it takes to make a sandwich. Totally comparable. Mindset, mindset.

I don’t have TIME to make flatbread, you are getting ready to say. Of course you don’t. Neither do I, in the morning before school, you big silly. If I have made it last night for dinner, or at some other time and stuck some in the freezer, though, the toaster oven and I can make it seem like I do. If, as is often the case, I haven’t done that, Laurie and I want you to know that even Stop & Shop has garlic naan in their bakery and freezer sections. Ditto Trader Joe’s, and any other grocery store you may frequent.

But I do warmly encourage making the bread one time at least, for the buzz of delirious self-congratulation it produces. Don’t be alarmed by the black caraway seeds called for. For the naan experience, they are extraneous anyway. But if you can get your hands on some, try it that way, too. Not a flavor you bump into very often, and pretty exciting for the tastebuds.

My friend Alana over at eating from the ground up has faithfully reproduced Laurie Colwin’s recipe word for word, so head over there to make use of it. You’ll get a bonus lentil soup out of the visit, among other delights.

If you want to turn your flatbread into garlic naan, just make the breads smaller, and brush them with garlic butter when they are done.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

hold the scone

Are you wondering what on earth packing lunch and making dinner for the 7,328th time have to do with saving the world, or is that just me? Fortunately, the other day Joel Salatin explained all that to me and to whoever else was listening to the radio. Organics in Wal-Mart this, farm subsidies that, he basically said; nothing will change until we return the kitchen table to the center of human society, and make mealtime the hub of the home. Yes! Yes! I nodded hard enough to hurt myself, risking a minor traffic accident.

Bear with me while I run this thread through some leftover oatmeal, which remained on the counter the other day when the contrails of the departing children cleared. With it, I made cinnamon buns, which are leftover oatmeal’s highest and best use. Really it’s the only possible use other than caulking a window or flinging it out the door for the chickens, which I recognize may not be an actual option for very many people.

Some friends stopped over in the afternoon, and I offered them each a bun.

“Did you make these?” asked the husband.

“Of course she did,” said the wife.

“No one makes these,” he stated firmly.

“You mean, besides the lady at the mall?” she replied.

Making the buns took about 25 minutes out of my day, in active terms, and required very few skills. I am not being modest. Really, it required very few skills, aside from willingess. But somehow cinnamon buns on a weekday afternoon are the kind of thing that seems like alchemy nowadays, or like some kind of crazy throw-back. Me and the buns can be an installation in a theme park. I see a calico dirndl, and a butter churn.

So we’ll leave me and the buns there in our Little House On The Prairie diorama for now, but rock onward with oatmeal and baking in one of their simplest and most satisfying forms. When I say that this recipe requires very few skills, you can be sure I mean it. Consider these the gateway drug to cinnamon buns.

These are the skills you will need:

Measuring not very carefully

Stirring for a little while

Flinging haphazardly

The payoff is extremely high for mastering these three things. This recipe, adapted from the Kripalu Cookbook, has an elastic ability to accommodate whatever lurks in your pantry (this is why it looks long, because of all the possible substitutions, so relax about that), can be mixed in a snap with very little forethought or preparation (no needing to soften the butter, for example), combines all manner of nutritious items that could arouse suspicion in other forms into one convenient handheld snack, and is almost universally enjoyed because--hallelujah--it tastes like dessert.

One recipe yields a mondo batch of nutrition-positive scone-like items that serve equally well as breakfast food, lunchbox fodder and afternoon snack. Nuts are optional; if you eliminate them for aesthetic reasons (not reasons of allergy), you might consider including ¼ to ½ a cup of almond meal in your dry ingredients to get their nutritional punch without alarming the consumers who think they don’t like them. You can bake one tray all the way to done and deploy it immediately, and you can under-bake the other tray, freeze those bad boys, and haul them out at a later date when time is short and you wish you had time to bake something. Just defrost them overnight and give them a final snap in the oven in the morning.

Here is the other devious trick that may turn you into a wanton mid-week baker: you can mix all the dry ingredients at night, just before stumbling up to bed, and come daybreak you are halfway to Scone Town.

The current favorite around here is made with chopped frozen peaches and crushed frozen raspberries, but a good case can be made for a version with chopped fresh pears and crystallized ginger, or apples, pecans and cinnamon, which gets me thinking about using a fresh mango and adding some coconut, but that's all up to you. I made them today with gluten-free flour and that worked out fine, but definitely required less milk than the called-for amount, which I had already dumped in when that occurred to me. They came out more like muffin tops than scones, which no one complained about (and just the thought of same was a good reminder to me to do more sit-ups.)

oatmeal scones

makes about 16 scones

3 cups flour (white, whole wheat pastry, or whole wheat, or any other type, alone or in combination)

1 ½ cups rolled oats

½ c sugar, sucanat, date sugar, coconut sugar, brown sugar or maple syrup (if the latter, then add it with the milk)

1/2 cup wheat germ, oat or wheat bran, flax meal, almond meal or a combination, or just use this much more flour

1T baking powder

1t baking soda

½ t salt

1 c chopped toasted almonds, pecans, hazelnuts, walnuts, pine nuts, or no nuts at all

1 c frozen or fresh blueberries, blackberries, raspberries; or chopped fresh apple, pear, peach or mango; or ½ cup of chopped dried fruit, like apricots, apples, mango or pears plus a ½ cup raisins or dried cherries or cranberries, or….

1 ½ cups milk, soymilk, nutmilk, or yogurt thinned with milk, or buttermilk, or a combination

1 tsp vanilla

¾ c melted or very soft butter (so a stick and a half), ghee or coconut oil, or canola oil, or a combination

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. You will need two ungreased (perhaps parchment-lined for ease of clean-up) cookie sheets, so have those ready.

In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients, plus the dried fruit if any of it figures in your version. Now mix the vanilla into your chosen milk and dump that over the dry ingredients along with the fat you have selected. When that is about half-combined with the flour, throw in any fresh or frozen fruit you may be using. If you have gone heavy on the dry additions, you may need to add a little more milk. If you are using a very juicy fresh fruit and/or the maple syrup option, you will want to start with a little less than the given amount of milk. Keep mixing until it is all combined. You are aiming for a mixture that is uniformly moist but not runny, more dough than batter, something like cookie dough that you can pick or spoon up easily.

Glob about ¾ cup per scone onto the cookie sheets with a little space between. Bake 15m or until lightly browned, reversing the trays halfway through. Hello, Uncle Bob.